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Suicide bombers strike mine, military barracks in Niger

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Suicide bombers struck a military barracks and a mine run by French nuclear group Areva in Niger on Thursday, killing and wounding several people in separate attacks that showed the fight against Islamist militants was spreading across West Africa.

Military sources said several soldiers were killed in a gun battle with Islamists following a car bomb attack at the barracks in Agadez, the largest town in northern Niger.

Areva said at least 13 members of staff were wounded in another bomb attack at about the same time at the Somair uranium mine it operates in the town of Arlit, in Niger's desert north.

A spokesman for the Nigerien government, Morou Amadou, said the attacks were by Islamist militants, probably from al Qaeda's north Africa wing AQIM or its spin-off West African group MUJAO which seized control of neighboring north Mali last year before being ousted by a French-led offensive launched in January.

"These are terrorists who have carried out the suicide attacks in Agadez and Arlit," he said. "The terrorists - I don't know for sure whether it was AQIM or MUJAO - infiltrated these towns and security forces have been deployed and are scouring the area."

The suicide attacks were the first in Niger since the offensive in northern Mali drove Islamist groups there into the vast, empty desert and across borders into neighboring Sahel states.

The Nigerien army has deployed as part of a West African force in Mali. Islamist suicide bombers have carried out a spate of attacks there in recent months, including one on a Niger army barracks earlier this month.

Military sources in Agadez said a suicide bomber drove a truck through the barrier of the town's military base before dawn on Thursday and detonated his explosives when soldiers opened fire.

"The suicide bomber was not alone: there were other terrorists who followed in cars and there were clashes," said one of the military sources, who said there were several dead on both sides. "The situation is now under control."

A Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said at least 10 people had been killed in the attack.

Areva said in a statement issued in Paris that at least 13 members of staff were wounded in the attack on its Somair mine.

The company said security at the site was being handled by the Niger military, though French sources had recently said Paris planned to sent special forces to the area for extra protection.

"The group condemns this odious attack against its staff," Areva said. "We express our solidarity with the government and the people of Niger in this common trial."

Niger's armed forces have taken part in recent weeks in a joint operation against Boko Haram Islamists in the Nigerian town of Baga on the shore of Lake Chad, in which dozens of people were reported killed.

Nigeria again asked its northern neighbor for military aid this week, after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northern states and launched an offensive against Boko Haram insurgents.

Nigeria worries that the four-year-old insurgency based in its remote northeast is being fed from abroad, through Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

(Additional reporting by James Regan, John Irish and Marion Douet in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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